A Life at the Video Store

November 10, 2011

North Carolina Video, Cary, North Carolina, 1983. My technophile father, a fugitive from movie theaters after three nuns sit down directly in front of us in an otherwise empty theater and talk throughout E.T.: The Extraterrestrial, discovers this, the first video rental store in my hometown. He brings home a Sony Betamax. The first videotape I ever rent is The Last Unicorn, a now-forgotten Rankin-Bass cartoon that was also the first movie I saw on tape (when my first grade teacher showed it, illegally, in class).

The Video Bar, Cary, North Carolina, 1984-1987. The second video store to open in my hometown, in a shopping center across the street from the mall. My mother and I drop in on its first day in business and come out with membership card #2, which we share for nearly a decade, until the store switches computers and issues new cards. Instead of carrying their chosen videotape box to the counter, customers retrieve a little laminated card for each title from a hook underneath the shelf – blue for Beta, red for VHS. Red cards guarantee tantrums, until my father finally throws in the towel and switches to VHS. Though as a child I generally dislike children’s films I rent, over and over again, The North Avenue Irregulars (because I like the cars) and the Dot and the Kangaroo movies (because I like the Australian animals).

North American Video, Cameron Village and North Raleigh, North Carolina, 1986-1987; Schoolkids Records, Saltbox Village, Cary North Carolina, c. 1988; various others. The mid-eighties are a bad time for a newly-minted Trekkie. In a lull between theatrical features, classic Star Trek is atypically scarce in syndication. My long-suffering father is deputized to drive me to every video store in Wake County in a mostly vain search for the fifty-two episodes available on video at the time of my conversion. One of these stores (I can’t remember which) supplies the crucial “Balance of Terror” and “The City on the Edge of Forever,” both found on the rare double-episode cassettes that are show’s the first home video release. (When the third season of Star Trek finally debuts on VHS, my father astonishes me by pulling out his credit card and buying all twenty-four tapes on the same night I first spot them in the Waldenbooks at Crabtree Valley Mall. He is tired of driving to video stores, I guess.) Hitchcock, the filmmaker who introduces me to the idea of auteurism, first catches my eye in the “Suspense” aisle of a North American Video in Morrisville.

Videorama and Video Plaza, Cary, North Carolina, 1988-1990. Tucked into neighboring shopping centers right in front of my mother’s post-divorce apartment, these two small stores make a convenient summer afternoon destination for a bored pre-teen. The copy on the videocassette boxes in these shops becomes my first film school. At Video Plaza I discover, and become obsessed with, The Outer Limits.

Silver Screen Video, Raleigh, North Carolina, 1988. Situated far out into North Raleigh, Silver Screen is run by movie buffs and is the only store in town that carries the remaining Outer Limits episodes then available on VHS – a mere eighteen out of forty-nine. Totally unaware of how the home video industry works, I call them every few weeks to ask if they have any “new” Outer Limits episodes. My voice hasn’t broken yet, and I am infuriated when the clerks address me as “ma’am.”

Blockbuster Video, Cary, North Carolina, c. 1989. The blight first intrudes on Kildaire Farm Road, where I sniff around this neon-lit monstrosity (which will wage a protracted battle with the town council, as the overbrightness of its signs violate a local ordinance). Failing to comprehend the drawing power that 1,000 copies of every bad new release will have, I dismiss it as understocked and overpriced ($5 a night plus tax?!). A friend responds more pro-actively, by depositing an electrocuted squirrel found on his lawn in the overnight drop of a Durham branch. But the battle is a losing one; Videorama and Video Plaza, both across the street, are among the first casualties.

Carbonated Video, Waverly Place, Cary, North Carolina, 1991-1995. Along with the venerable Video Bar, now relocated to the other side of the Winn-Dixie/TJ Maxx shopping center, this new arrival is the best place in town to find classic and cult movies during my teenage cinephile years.

The Video Bar, Raleigh, North Carolina, 1993-1995. This offshoot, near the North Carolina State campus, stocks a hip slate of cassettes. Here, I discover the work of Russ Meyer – never imagining that a few years later I will spend a memorable afternoon with Russ and his sometime star Charlie Napier.

VisArt Video, Carrboro, North Carolina, 1994-1995. Having exhausted the movie supply in my own county, I begin regular trips to this college town mecca, almost an hour’s drive to the west, during my senior year of high school. I rent as many as I can, copy them all to enable time-shifting (most VCRs manufactured prior to 1990 were immune to Macrovision; I kept one operational until well into this century), and do it all over again the next weekend. I can’t remember the name of it, but a tiny little video store on a bend in the road between Chapel Hill and Carrboro supplies the life-changing Home Vision tapes of Sam Fuller’s Shock Corridor and The Naked Kiss. On the cross-country trip to college, my parents check out the Grand Canyon but I haul a VCR and my 13″ TV into a hotel room each night and watch tapes from the VisArt cache. (Teenagers are dumb.)  The only film I remember from that week is Marnie, the last major Hitchcock film I have not yet seen.  I am ready for new directors and new directions as I start my new life on the West Coast.

Tempo Music & Video and the 32nd Street Market, Los Angeles, California, 1995-1999. USC is in a low-income area that cannot support real video stores. All I find are a music shop and a dingy grocery store in a little outdoor mall, each with a kiosk full of mostly new releases. No matter: In film school it dawns on me that contemporary movies can be as good as old ones, so I eagerly set about bringing myself up to date.

Mondo Video a Go-Go and Jerry’s Video, Los Feliz, California, 1997-1999. Only a short bus ride from USC, these quirky neighborhood shops fill in more gaps, and the weird proprietors behind the counter provide added entertainment.

Eddie Brandt’s Saturday Matinee, North Hollywood, California, 1996-2000. Perhaps the greatest video store of all time, EBSM is a long schlep into the Valley, but has no limit on rentals. I take a shoulder bag and fill it up each time. Noobs complain that the videos are organized not by genre but in alphabetical order, but of course I come with a list – and know enough to ask for the contraband behind the counter. Eddie Brandt’s allows me to become a television historian: it has a wall of bootlegs of shows like Naked City, East/Side West Side, Arrest and Trial, and others I’d only dreamed of ever finding.

Dave’s Video/The Laser Place, Studio City, California, 1999-2000. Having missed the laserdisc era almost entirely (those suckers are expensive, and therefore off my radar; as a teenager I mistake the rack of them in Camelot Music for soundtrack albums), I purchase my first DVD player in August 1999 and begin almost daily walks from my Coldwater Canyon apartment to Dave’s, one of the premiere DVD outlets in Los Angeles and soon to be a canary-in-the-mineshaft casualty of the medium’s decline. Dave’s is known for its celebrity customers, most famously Brad Pitt and Jennifer Aniston, but I cherish meeting character actors like Bonnie Bartlett and Kurtwood Smith here.

Evergreen Video, West Village, New York City, 2000-2007. A friendlier but almost as well-stocked equivalent to the tool factory across town (see below), this tiny West Village store cuts up the video boxes and rehouses the artwork in fingertip-slicing laminated sleeves in bins. It’s even less browsable than Eddie Brandt’s, but no matter: by now I am cataloging every new DVD release of interest in a life-governing spreadsheet.

Tower Records, 4th Ave & 4th St, New York City, 2000-2006. The video rental shelf is small, but I can get new releases and TV seasons at two dollars for three nights – best deal in town. The Tower/Evergreen circuit becomes a fast-walking Friday lunch hour ritual for a few years.

Mondo Kim’s Video, East Village, New York City, 2000-2004; 2007-2008. A sluggish convert to the new DVD format, Mondo Kim’s eventually becomes the only store in town to amass a substantial library of imports and bootlegs. Relations with the legendarily supercilious staff deteriorate to the point that, following a conversation ending in the declaration “I have your money and I’m not giving it back,” a three year boycott is declared. Toward the end of 2007 I notice a “for rent” sign in the upstairs window and, although the twerps behind the counter persistently deny that the end is near, I lift the ban and manage to rent most of the expensive imports and out-of-print rarities just before the inevitable closure. In a typically shady maneuver, Mr. Kim, who once ranked number thirty-seven on the New York Press’s annual “Most Loathsome New Yorkers” list, does not sell off the videos but instead packs them away to a small town in Italy with the promise that the memberships of any old customers who happen to pass through Palermo will still be honored. Though I am happy to see my stoner asshat nemeses out of work, this still probably rates as some kind of tragedy.

Netflix, 2005-201?. I enjoy the rituals of browsing and spur-of-the-moment selections and am therefore a late and reluctant convert to rental by mail. Though impressed by the reliability of Netflix and the breadth of its library, I remain faithful to Evergreen and to Kim’s until they leave me twice widowed. (Visiting my home town, I ask around and realize that every single North Carolina video store mentioned above has closed its doors – even the Blockbuster. The final holdout, VisArt Video, hits eject at the beginning of this year.) At last almost entirely dependent on Netflix by 2008, I am unsurprised to find myself ditched once again, as company founder and nouveau douchebag Reed Hastings declares his loyalty to a deeply flawed streaming video offering and commences to throwing discs over the side as quickly as he can hoist them. The future is uncertain, but from here – on this, my thirty-fifth birthday – it looks a lot like 1982.

Minor changes for clarity made on March 28 and August 15, 2012.  Thanks to Scott, Andrea, and Toby for supplying the forgotten names of some of the stores mentioned above.

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Even among movie buffs, Collin Wilcox is not as well known as she should be.  Maybe it’s because of her gender-neutral name (taken from a Canadian uncle; her parents were confident of a boy), or because from the very beginning of her career she disappeared into her characters with a lack of vanity rare for a young actress.

Collin had one famous film role, as Mayella Ewell, the redneck teenager who falsely accuses a black man of rape, in To Kill a Mockingbird; her stormy witness-stand breakdown provides the movie with its startling, sad climactic twist.  But her movie resume includes juicy roles that you’ve probably forgotten, even if you remember the films: two for her friend James Bridges (The Baby Maker and September 30, 1977, both criminally unavailable on DVD); one for Mike Nichols (lost amid the chaos as one of the nurses in Catch-22); the late sixties cult items The Name of the Game Is Kill and The Revolutionary; and finally on the losing side of science as the marine biologist in Jaws 2.  (“Sharks don’t take things personally, Mr. Brody.”)

Before she ever made a feature, though, Collin was a busy television actress, one of the pool of A-list guest stars who made the rounds of the major TV dramas.  Already a success on Broadway, she made her first splash on TV in a live adaptation (directed by Robert Mulligan, who would remember her for Mockingbird) of Carson McCullers’s The Member of the Wedding.  Collin played Frankie, the twelve year-old southern tomboy, a role originated by Julie Harris in the stage and film versions of the novel.

Over the next two decades Collin appeared on The Defenders (three times), Dr. Kildare, Ben Casey, Judd For the Defense, The Waltons, Little House on the Prairie, and dozens more.  But she may be best known for a pair of genre classics that both aired in early 1964.  The first was one The Twilight Zone‘s ironic rants against conformity, “Number 12 Looks Like You,” which presciently envisioned a society where mandatory plastic surgery resculpts everyone to match a generic ideal of beauty.  (In case you haven’t been watching reality TV or the CW lately, we more or less have that now.)  “Number 12″ put Collin in the unflattering role of the plain girl surrounded by beautiful people (Suzy Parker, Pam Austin, Richard Long), although her own offbeat good looks offered a rebuke to the plasticized prettiness of the others; as one TV fan said to me, “What was wrong with her?  I liked her better the way she was!”

Three weeks after “Number 12,” Collin appeared as Pat Buttram’s jailbait, backwoods bride in “The Jar,” an Alfred Hitchcock Hour adaptation of Ray Bradbury so spooky that it still turns up regularly on TV aficionados’ lists of all-time favorite episodes (including mine).  Collin has a ball, drawing on all the tools she set aside for “Number 12″‘s Marilyn Cuberle, slinking around in skimpy outfits and suppressing every sign of her own sharp intellect.  The result is a frank sensuality that could only slip into sixties TV via performance; had it been scripted, it would have been censored.

Last year, Collin shared some remarkable stories surrounding her work in “The Benefactor,” a milestone Defenders episode about abortion.  Since then we’d remained in touch, and Collin has become one of my favorite people – not just for her courage in discussing a painful incident from her past, but also because she uses words like “peachy” and hails from my own home state of North Carolina (where she now lives).

When I decided to inaugurate a series of interviews with some of my favorite classic television actors for this blog, Collin was an obvious choice.  We spoke at length about the early years of her career last fall, after a delay necessitated by the presidential election: Collin had turned over her theater space to the local Obama campaign.  Only after spending some time celebrating the fact that (for the first time in my lifetime) North Carolina’s electoral votes had gone to a Democratic candidate did we turn our attention to Collin’s life and to some of her many television roles.

Tell me about your television debut. 

Brenner was the first thing that I ever did.  I was told to go in, and there was a doorman, of course, and he pointed upstairs, to a big, winding staircase.  So I bopped into the room that I was told was my dressing room, and I had my little box of stage makeup with me.  I started applying my makeup, and I heard a huge commotion several floors down, and there was the producer and the director and the AD and a whole bunch of people.  I heard my name several times and I went, “Hey, I’m up here!”

They thought I was late.  They were really furious, and the makeup artist came to my rescue.  She said, “If you don’t stop yelling at her, she won’t stop crying, and I’ll never get this makeup off and the other makeup on.”  So they did.  They didn’t know that I didn’t know that I wasn’t going to put on my own makeup.  They’d asked for an experienced ingenue.  There’s no such thing as an experienced ingenue!

Marty Balsam was playing my father, and we had the scene [with] the two of us on a settee.  They said, “Okay, Marty’s closeup next.”  They gave me a little box to sit on.  They started to shoot, and I went, oh, gosh, I’ve got to get in there, so I just jumped into his one-shot, on the sofa next to him.  I thought they’d made a mistake!

Was that the first time you’d ever been in front of a motion picture camera?

Yes, it had to have been, because those two scenes are so engraved in my memory.  It was so traumatic.

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As mobster’s daughter Elizabeth Joplin on Brenner (“Family Man,” 1959)

Was The Member of the Wedding a breakthrough for you?

Well, it was huge for me, because of course I’d read Carson McCullers and absolutely adored her.  It’s any ingenue’s dream part, and I just loved everything about it.  And like every other young actress in New York, I was going to have that part.

I cut my hair really, really, really short – this was just for the first audition – and I got those long dish towels and I had my husband bind my breasts, which wasn’t very much to do, but at least then I was totally flat-chested.  Then the night before, I took iodine and I made freckles across my nose in different places, knowing it would fade the next morning and really look like freckles.  Oh, and I went to the audition barefooted.  I did the whole bit.

Robert Mulligan quite liked me, and he had me come back, and then I came back for the third time.  And Claudia McNeil did not take to me.  I don’t think she took to many people, but she certainly didn’t take to me.  I thought, “I’m going to lose this – no, no, I’m not going to lose it!”  She was in the room too, with Robert and maybe with someone else.  I was doing the “we of me” speech, and I leapt up on Robert’s desk and did it up there, and then I leapt into Claudia’s lap and hugged and kissed her.  I got the part.

Was The Member of the Wedding your first live TV role?

I think there was one before that, and I’m damned if I know what it was called ["Barefoot Soldier," for Kraft Theater].  Sal Mineo was the male lead.  He was a union soldier, and I was the southern girl.  It was live, a three camera thing.

I remember another faux pas I made.  We had a scene – it was a love interest thing, kind of cute – and we had a scene where we were supposed to be sitting around the pond.  It a big huge tub with plastic and water in it, and all landscaped around.  I was barefoot in a dress hiked up probably much higher than it should have been hiked up, and swishing my feet around in the water, and my toes caught on something.  I’m a country girl, so it was natural for me to feel things with my toes, and I started to worry with it.  I mean, just play with it and go on with the scene.  And behind camera, I felt this frantic movement around me.  I looked down and the water was going down at a huge rate.  I’d pulled the plug out!

That was the same fall, ’57, as when I had got married, which was a terrible mistake, and lived in New York, which wasn’t a terrible mistake.

When did you arrive in New York?

The late fall of 1957.  I started going on auditions, and in December I got a role in The Day the Money Stopped.  Harold Clurman was the director, and Brendan Gill had adapted from it Maxwell Anderson’s book.  Richard Basehart was in it, and Kevin McCarthy, and Mildred Natwick.  That was a great experience.

It was kind of like its title: The Day the Money Stopped.  It was in and it was out.  But that year George C. Scott and I won the male and female award – Clarence Derwent, I think it was called – as the best supporting actress and actor on or off Broadway.

Prior to that you had performed in Chicago, right?

Yeah, I went to school at the Goodwin Memorial School of Drama there, and then I went back to Chicago to become a member of Compass, the first improvisational group in this country, maybe anywhere, with Mike Nichols, Elaine May, Shelley Berman, the late Severn Darden, Barbara Harris.  Then I played the ingenue in Arthur Miller’s two-act version of A View From the Bridge, that starred Luther Adler.

The marriage that you mentioned, was that to  Geoffrey Horne?

No, I’m talking about the first one, Walter Beakel, who is deceased.  He was a director.  I met him in summer stock in Rhinelander, Wisconsin.  One of those things where you do about fourteen plays in one summer.  He was down from New York.  After that summer was over, he replaced a director at Compass, and Barbara Harris was going to leave in a few months, so he brought me in as Barbara’s replacement.  Then it folded, and people went their separate ways.

After the summer stock tour of A View From the Bridge on the straw hat circuit, I rushed home to do The Fourposter with my groom to be, and then went to New York.

Walter and I were getting married here in Highlands, and we were also in rehearsal for the two-character play The Fourposter, that Hume Cronyn and Jessica Tandy did on Broadway to great success.  We were doing it in my parents’ little theater here, the community theater where I started.  A reheasal was called, and I got to the theater and the theater doors were locked and there was no one there and I was sitting there fuming and calling everybody totally unprofessional, and my mother drove up and said, “Collin,  rehearsal’s at the church, dear.”

I had one thing on my mind – that play.  The only reason I married Walter was he said if I didn’t marry him, he’d leave and we wouldn’t do the play.  That’s why I married him!  I was very mature.  We were a couple of weeks away from opening, and he’d been pressing me to marry him, and I said, “Walter, I really respect you, you’re a terrific director and a really good teacher, but I don’t want to marry you.  I’m not in love with you.”  He said, “That’s okay.  Doesn’t matter.”  He’d made up his mind he was going to marry me.

Another of your early roles in New York was on Play of the Week, in “The Velvet Glove” with Helen Hayes.

Do you remember a character actor named Larry Gates?  He was in it also.  Larry Gates had worked down at my parents’ theater in the forties, and so I knew him from being very small.  I knew him, and here we are in New York and we’re both in the same TV show with the magnificent Helen Hayes, who had the oddest habit of looking at your forehead when she talked to you.  It was because she was so short she was afraid her eyes wouldn’t be seen.  It was a little disconcerting but one got around it.

What I remember most from that shoot is that Miss Hayes said something that absolutely tickled Larry so much that he peed in his pants, and he had to take his trenchcoat and tie it around himself and wear it that way for the rest of rehearsals.  Isn’t it weird the things you can remember?  I don’t remember anything else about that, except that I played some really kind of boring little scullery part.  I did it because Miss Helen Hayes was in it.

Even that early in your career, were you choosy about the parts you took?

Yep.  I was never interested in being a star.

You were a serious actress, instead?

Well, see, I was of the theatah, dear, and one took one’s acting very seriously.  You know, you’d think you were a rocket scientist or something.  Particularly back then, doing the work was very, very important, and of course that just got intensified when I became a member of the Actors Studio.

How did you get into the Actors Studio?

Walter was old friends with Geraldine Page, and she became sort of a mentor.  I guess she came with Walter to The Day the Money Stopped.  She said that I absolutely had to audition for the Actors Studio, and she was sure that I would get in.  And I wanted to study with someone, and why not the great Lee Strasberg?  Three auditions, and you’re in or not.  For life.

What did you learn from Strasberg?

He gave me the voice of my own intuition.  He taught you how to be emotionally available to yourself, if you were willing.  I already had the technique.  I’d been on stage for a long time.  It just deepened what I already have, which is basically being an intuitive actor.

Let me ask about some of your better known TV appearances from early on.  One was The Twilight Zone.

Oh, The Twilight Zone.  My own father was very much like what you hear about her father – the way Marilyn talks about her father.  One of his lines, that she quotes, was, “When everyone’s beautiful, no one will be beautiful.”  My father was an educated, compassionate man, and I thought about that when I was doing that role.  You know, I was totally on the side of Marilyn – thinking, this is awful, this could lead to 1984, with a stretch of the imagination.

What do you remember about the rest of the cast and crew of “Number 12 Looks Just Like You”?

Suzy Parker was such a great beauty.  I was just enamored of that kind of beauty, and she gave me all kinds of beauty tricks.  I mean, she was a model.  She said, “Now, keep a little pot of rouge by your bedside, and your brush, and just put some on your cheeks before your husband wakes up.”

The director was Abner Biberman.  Between playing the role and being chased around on the set by that man – and I had on some skimpy clothes, particularly that hospital thing.  Fortunately he was really heavy, and I could get into small places that he couldn’t!

Biberman was really that obvious about trying to grab you?

Oh, yes.  He had directed me in a play previous to casting me in this.  Oh, god, it is an awful play, called The Family Way.  Jack Kelly was my co-star.  That’s where Biberman knew anything about me, really.  I thought I was working with a man who was frothing at the mouth all the time – he had quite a temper – but he chewed Tums or something, so this frothy white stuff came out of the sides of his mouth when he was talking.

When you were a young actress, did men often chase you around sets like that?

Yes.  And there was no such [term] then as sexual harrassment, and you didn’t talk to anyone about it.  Because you probably felt, well, it’s my fault.  I must be flirting.  I don’t feel like I’m flirting, I don’t want to be flirting, I just want to act!  It was . . . annoying, to say the least.

I will not name this actor, but he was a really big star.  After Twilight Zone, I flew to Italy to join my fiance, Geoffrey Horne, who was shooting a film in Rome.  Then on the flight coming back, the stewardess, as we called them then, came up and said, “So-and-so would like you to come and join him in first class.”  I said, “Okay!” and flounced up there and sat down next to him.  I had on an angora, like a really nice little fuzzy sweater, and he reached over and cupped my breast and he said, “You don’t mind my doing this, do you?”

And I said, “I really do.”

He said, “Well, I respect you for that,” and went on cupping my breast.  And he was on the aisle seat!  It was like that then.

How did you get out of that?

I said, “I’ve got to go tinkle.”  It really embarrassed me.  Of course I never came back, and of course he wasn’t going to chase me all the way down there to second class.

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As pushy reporter Lisa Rand on Run For Your Life (“The Treasure Seekers,” 1966)

The way you described yourself in relation to Suzy Parker highlights an interesting aspect of your career, in that even though you were attractive, you often found yourself playing characters like Marilyn Cuberle: the plain, girl-next-door type.

I know it.

How did you feel about that at the time?

Well, somehow I knew, from a very young age, that I was a character actress, and that I was just going to have to go through this ingenue stuff until I got to some juicy character parts.  Yeah, there were times when I thought, this is ridiculous.  But usually, you see, the parts were better than the bip-boppity-boo little cute sexy ones.

Also, I had a very flexible face.  Whatever the character was, I could look that way.  I wasn’t really interested in how the character looked.  I was interested in the character.

You did play a pretty unforgettable sexpot, albeit a sort of stereotypical backwoods one, in the famous Alfred Hitchcock Hour “The Jar.”

That was a wonderful, wonderful shoot.  Norman Lloyd put together this incredible cast.  I mean, it was just a wonderful cast of people, and the script was wonderful and just so Ray Bradbury.  Hitchcock was crazy about it.

It was [Norman's] pet project, it really was, and we were all very excited because we had a ten-day shoot, which was such a luxury.  Norman kept such a wonderful excitement on the set.  I just loved everybody, and we all loved the piece that we were doing.  Pat Buttram!  Waiting for setups I got to sit and listen to Gene Autry stories.  Now where else would I ever have heard Gene Autry stories?

Jim Bridges [who adapted Bradbury's story] and I became really close friends.  I was in a couple of movies that he did, and a play that he wrote, and that’s where we met, on the set of “The Jar.”  He was there most of the shooting time.

Your second Hitchcock Hour was a strange, modern-dress version of “The Monkey’s Paw.”

Oh, I hated that.  I think I didn’t like my part, and I certainly didn’t like my costumes.  And I was terrible!  We came across it quite a few years ago, and my husband, who didn’t know anything about theater when we were married almost thirty years ago, but I said, “You have to go into theater, darling, because otherwise you’ll bore me and then I’ll leave you, and I’d much rather stay with you.”  He went into theater; he’s a brilliant improvisationalist and now is a great film buff, and has an eye.  So we’re watching this, and he turned around and said, “Collin, you are awful in this.  What were you doing?”  I said, “I know.  It’s just terrible!”

You were on Dr. Kildare twice, both times playing unfit mothers.

Oh, and one of those unfit mothers [in "Sister Mike"], Mary Badham played my daughter.  Her parents really didn’t want her to go on with acting.  They wanted her to have a normal little life.  But this role came up and because we’d been in To Kill a Mockingbird together – we didn’t have any scenes together [in Mockingbird], but we saw each other on the set, and I had a nice relationship with the children.

There was a scene that I remember, on the bed.  I think I was a prostitute; anyway, I was a derelict mother, that’s for sure.  She was watching me put on makeup.  You know that old cake mascara?  You had a little cardboard box, and a strip of cake mascara and there was a little brush in the box, and you spit on the mascara and rubbed the brush and put it on your eyelashes.  In the scene, I got ready to do that, and I spit, and Mary Badham had never seen it, and she just totally broke up, and we just kept it in the scene.

You appeared opposite Robert Culp in a rival medical drama, Ben Casey.

Here’s what I truly remember.  It used to be fashionable, if you could get it just right, to just put a little bit of bella donna in your eye and then it’d make your pupils really big.  Very dangerous to be doing, of course.  I don’t know where I got bella donna – probably from my eye doctor – but I decided before my closeup I’d put some in my eyes.

Well, of course everything got really, really hazy.  I could remember my lines and everything, but I couldn’t see that well.  And then there was a script change – and I couldn’t read!  I faked my way through it.  I just had the script girl read it to me several times over, and made some excuse why I couldn’t read it myself.  Can you imagine being that ridiculous?

Do you remember your appearances on The Untouchables?

I remember the one with Luther Adler, because my character had to come up to her front door, and then there were people shooting at her.  What they did was wire the bannister, and they put too much juice in it, and I lost the hearing in my left ear for, I’d say, at least five months.  It came back.  Movie sets are dangerous!

On Gunsmoke, I was playing some prairie wife, and the locusts were coming.  Now that was bad enough, that you’re sitting in a buckboard, plowing through the fields at a great rate, and all these – I guess they were rubber [bugs] – but masses of them are being blown in your face by a wind machine.  But during this particular Gunsmoke, I had gotten a flu of some kind, and my fever was up to about 102.  I could not even stand, and the A.D. said, “You’ll understand, Collin, I have to ask you if we can get this one last shot.  We’ll lash you to the seat in the buckboard.”  I said, “Sure.”  They were going to kill me!  But I agreed.  I said, “Oh, sure.”  Always be a trouper.

You were on The Fugitive twice, with David Janssen.

Always with The Fugitive, we shot in the most ungodly, tacky locations, it seemed.  This one ["Approach With Care"] was around a rubber tire refuse place.  There were towers of ancient rubber tires everywhere.  I don’t know how five hundred people always found David Janssen, but they did, and they would arrive at the shoot.  He had his great big trailer, and he would never sign autographs.  They would even get to the point where they would start shaking the trailer.

During the mid-sixties you made several TV appearances together with your second husband, Geoffrey Horne.  One was a Route 66 where Horne has a really showy part, and you make a little cameo as a glamorous girl who jilted him years earlier.  Do you remember that?

I do.  “Is It True That There Are Poxies at the Bottom of Landfair Lake?”

That’s very good – how did you remember that title?

Because I was on that shoot when President Kennedy was assassinated. I was there as a cameo, because Geoffrey wanted me there and we traveled together, and I didn’t mind doing a cameo.  It was in Savannah.  The announcement [of the Kennedy shooting] was made on the set, so the set closed down for the rest of the day.  When we were in our hotel room that night, there was dancing and cheering like it was a Mardi Gras on the streets.

But worse than that was our experience when we all got back to the shoot the next morning.  Everyone was really, really very depressed, and moving slowly.  And the A.D. or the assistant A.D., who usually had a golf club with him – you know, taking swings at the [imaginary] turf – he said, and these are the exact words, “All right, everybody, back to work.  The assassination was yesterday.”

You must have felt really out of touch, being far from home and in the deep south when that happened.

Yeah, it was absolutely horrible.

You also did an episode of The F.B.I. with Geoffrey and with Colleen Dewhurst.

Oh, I forgot he was in that!  Working with Colleen was beautiful – what a great and fine and generous actress she was.

I’ve got the greatest story to tell you about that show.  Geoffrey and I adopted three children.  The mother had abandoned them and they’d been in McClaren Hall in California, where they put juvenile delinquents in the holding tank for kids whose parents had abandoned them, and then they went to a foster home.  They were having to remove them from the foster home because the foster parents had twelve kids in there, and that was too many.  So we adopted them, all in one fell swoop.  The eldest boy was eight and a half, the girl was four and a half, and the baby was eighteen months.

The social worker brought them to the house.  The baby was fine, but the two other kids looked as if they had seen the devil in front of them.  I was standing there with my arms open and smiling at them and welcoming them.  They had seen that episode, “The Baby Sitter,” and the big scene where Colleen snatches off my wig and I’m all bald and burned underneath!  Well, imagine you’re these little orphans coming to your new home, and here’s this [same woman]?  It took a little while to get over that.  “No, no, no, no, your new mommy was just acting.  It’s not me.”

collin-longstreet
As Verna the waitress (“She makes great pies”) on Longstreet (“Eye of the Storm,” 1972)

Did you like Los Angeles, and acting in Hollywood, after you moved west with Geoffrey?

You know, except for Rome, I really haven’t liked any place but here.  The mountains are just so much a part of me.  I loved Malibu and on the beach, but the L.A. kind of life, the show biz life, was never anything I wanted to be a part of.  I always knew I’d come back here.

When did you move back to North Carolina?

1978.  I left L.A. when those drive-by shootings were starting to happen.  The women, except for me, were either carrying brass knuckles, or they had a pistol stuck in their pack at their side, or some other form of protection against attacks.  And there was the cocaine rage during that time.  If you walked into an office, the people in power were practically all doing cocaine.  It was like you weren’t one of them if you weren’t doing that.

And then there was the other thing.  I was in my mid-forties, and I thought, my god, have they all discovered I really can’t act?  There weren’t many parts coming in.  Plus, my youngest child, Michael, was still at home, and we’d had an earthquake that just absolutely terrified him.  So I said, okay, let’s go home.

I met Scott several months after I’d been home, and we were married in August of ’79.  We have five dogs and one cat and two kittens and two horses and a pony.  We live in the log cabin I was raised in, and that I inherited.  I grew up on the side of a mountain, and Frank Lloyd Wright said that the side of a mountain was the sweetest place to be.

Collin Wilcox passed away on October 14, 2009.  More here.

Goodbye

January 15, 2009

Two of my favorite actors passed away during the same weekend.

Steven Gilborn died in his home state of New York on Friday, January 2.  Gilborn was a character actor whom I mentioned briefly when I wrote about an episode of The Wonder Years called “Goodbye.” 

Gilborn plays a math teacher whose tutoring had finally managed to unlock some understanding of and even enthusiasm for algebra in Kevin Arnold, the show’s thirteen year-old protagonist.  But then Mr. Collins turns off the font of knowledge, without explanation or apology.  “I thought you were my friend,” Kevin tells him.  “Not your friend, Mr. Arnold,” he says.  “Your teacher.” 

Later, almost in an epilogue, Kevin learns that Mr. Collins is dead.  He’d been ill – that was why he kicked Kevin to the curb.  What Kevin, from his teenaged point of view, mistook for abandonment was actually an insurmountable sense of privacy. 

Because “Goodbye” is structured as a sort of emotional mystery, the role of Mr. Collins – the character with the secret – is an enormously challenging one.  It’s also not a very rewarding part, in the sense that Mr. Collins has no big final scene, no moment of confession.  What the writer, Bob Brush, is interested in is a very specific kind of regret: the guilt someone carries around after it turns out that he’s said or done something horrible to a person he ends up never seeing again.  So Mr. Collins has to die off-screen. 

A more selfish actor would’ve slipped in a note of bathos somewhere.  A furrowed brow, a wince of pain, a hesitation on a line, something to hint at the upcoming revelation that only Fred Savage (as Kevin) and Daniel Stern (as his adult voice) will get to play.  But look at what Gilborn does with that moment.  He’s a study in restraint – his line readings are totally even, his expression ambiguous, almost a Kuleshovian exercise.  There’s a quote, which I’ve seen attributed (appropriately, for this venue) to the live TV director Robert Stevens, to the effect that an actor should be like a duck: still on the surface, but paddling furiously underneath.  Gilborn knows that the more he withholds, the more invested the viewer becomes in needing to know what his character is hiding.

gilborn-wy

I saw “Goodbye” on the night of its original broadcast in 1990.  I was thirteen.  My mother watched it too.  Her taste and mine didn’t overlap much, to say the least, but I remember that both of us had the same reaction: that that was some acting. 

I was already a movie buff, so it was natural for me to note Steven Gilborn’s name and to look for it in the credits of other shows.  He popped up on Picket Fences, on ER, on Chicago Hope, in the movie Safe.  Lots of doctors and other authority figures: type-casting, and nothing as meaty as The Wonder Years.  I felt like I was rooting for Gilborn to make a breakthrough into bigger parts.  It never happened.  At least not that I noticed; I didn’t realize it, because I wasn’t watching many sitcoms in those days, but during this period Gilborn was also busy on a great many television comedies (especially Ellen, on which he recurred as Ellen DeGeneres’ father).  It never occurred to me that Gilborn’s unadorned style could be considered deadpan, but it was, and he made an ideal straight man.

I didn’t know Gilborn, but I did have an unexpected connection to him.  All of us film school undergraduates at the University of Southern California had to take a class that’s now legendary among alumni: Cinema 290.  It’s the introductory film production course, and the only one required for “critical studies” majors like myself.  During the semester, every student had to film, shoot, and edit five five-minute movies on Super 8mm film (yes, I am that old, although mine was the last class before they switched to video).  The weekly class sessions, which took up a whole afternoon, were given over to screenings and (usually, but not always, civil) verbal and written critiques by the instructors and the other students.  Making the films was a grueling, almost impossible, task, but the class meetings turned into a stimulating exercise in instant criticism.

Each 290 section was taught by two instructors, and since it’s entry-level and mandatory, there were a gazillion sections and two gazillion teachers.  Because it wasn’t a hard-core technical class, the teachers tended to be a hodge-podge of creative types.  A friend of mine had Stuart Hagmann, a wunderkind episodic TV director of the late sixties, as one of his instructors.  One of mine was a photographer named Karen Halverson.

The class discussions often drifted into general conversations about film and artistic technique, which I guess was the point, and one day Karen related some anecdote involving her husband, an actor.  Another student asked who he was – in other words, had we ever heard of him? – and Karen said he was probably best known as one of the teachers on The Wonder Years.  “Which one?” somebody asked, as my mind started running through the age-appropriate possibilities.  “The math teacher who died.” 

At that point I sat up straight and exclaimed, “Karen, you’re married to Steven Gilborn?”  She had not yet mentioned his name.  I’ll never forget the look on her face.  Her jaw dropped, literally.  I’m certain that no stranger had ever recognized her husband by name before.  The other students, all fourteen of them, also gaped at me like I was some kind of freak.  So I felt compelled to explain how I happened to have followed Steve Gilborn’s career (as a sort of special subcategory of a generally obsessive attention to actors and directors and writers) for nearly ten years, and what that one performance on The Wonder Years had meant to me.

I think Karen, in addition to being amazed, was flattered and a little touched, and she may have said that her husband would’ve been, too.  I asked a few questions about Gilborn – someone I’d wondered about all that time, in those days when there was barely an internet – and she told me about his unusual background.  He’d been a successful academic, a humanities professor at top universities, and acting professionally was a second career for him, begun during middle age.  Maybe that was one reason why he’d caught my attention, why his approach seemed distinct from most other actors. 

For a few minutes Karen and I ignored everybody else and talked back and forth about her husband, both exclaiming over how small a world we’d found ourselves in that day. 

Finally, the poor girl whose film had been the subject of discussion wailed, “Can we go back to talking about my movie now, please?” 

*

On the other hand, I did know Pat Hingle, slightly.  If a phone interview counts as knowing someone.  (If it does, then Tony Randall, George C. Scott, and Robert Altman also numbered among my close pals.)  Hingle died one day after Steven Gilborn.

My mania for Hingle also began when I was a teenager, with Splendor in the Grass.  My mother had something to do with that, too.  Splendor is one of her favorites, mainly because of Hingle’s electrifying performance as Ace Stamper, the father of Warren Beatty’s character. 

Mom’s taste in movies generally ran to Troy Donahue-Suzanne Pleshette romances, so I was not predisposed to embrace anything she recommended.  But when I finally gave in and watched Splendor, I had to agree: that was some acting.

Hingle logged in an enormous number of television appearances, in live television and as a guest star on filmed shows from the sixties through the nineties.  That’s supposed to be my specialty, but I just don’t feel like enumerating a list of Hingle performances.  These posthumous reminiscences are piling up like kudzu on this blog, more than a dozen of them in just over a year, and I don’t know how many more I can write.

I will say that as I look over the list, one Hingle guest shot catches my eye.  In the Fugitive episode “Nicest Fella You’d Ever Want to Meet,” Hingle stars as an Arizona sheriff named Joe Bob Sims, whose genial demeanor conceals a homicidal streak.  This was the Bull Connor area, and sixties TV is rife with psychotic lawmen: Mickey Rooney on Kraft Suspense Theatre, Bert Freed on Run For Your Life, Clifton James in just about every series he appeared on.  It’s a stock character – Joe Bob, even! – but watching Hingle riff on the stereotype is as much fun as watching a kitten play with string.

Hingle’s first scene shows him leading a meeting of “Apache scouts,” dishing out tall tales about his Apache background to a group of little angel-faced boys.  One of them says (I’m paraphrasing here) that his father thinks Joe Bob is full of shit.  Hingle says, sweetly, “Well, Johnny, ol’ buddy, I’m gonna have to have a talk with your daddy, ’bout minding his own business.”  But his face flickers, turns dark, for a split second, giving us just a hint of what a raving lunatic Sheriff Joe Bob will turn out to be. 

hingle-cat

Later the sheriff hustles Richard Kimble out of town.  He knows Kimble is a wanted man, but Kimble is also a witness to one of Joe Bob’s murders, so the sheriff is willing to live and let live.  Of course Kimble sneaks back into town to set things right.  Joe Bob swoops down on him, and when they come face to face, his line is, “You just made a baaaad mistake, boy.”  Hingle’s delivery, and the deer-in-the-headlights on David Janssen’s face, are beautiful.

I’m from North Carolina, and of course I loved the fact that Hingle had settled there during his twilight years.  And of course, I’d often thought of paying him a visit in Carolina Beach to do a real interview.  This week I listened to the tape of my short interview with Hingle.  I was asking about a particular TV appearance, and he had to leave, so we only talked for about fifteen minutes.  But there were hints at great stories, and names dropped of people I never would’ve guessed Hingle had known.  He spoke about hanging around on the set of The Birds, for instance, where he visited his friend Lonny Chapman.  He didn’t elaborate, but Hingle didn’t think it would be much fun to work as an actor for Hitchcock.

If you read this blog regularly, you know the refrain: I was too busy, and we never got together.  A case of wanting to do something right, and then never getting it done.  There have been too many of those.

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